A call to arms by Paul Gibbons
You may have seen flashes of light on the horizon. Or heard the distant sound of gunfire carried on the breeze. Perhaps the smell of cordite in your Twitter feed.
A battle is coming this way and it’s very nearly upon us. If this fight is lost, other armies defending our rights will lose an essential weapon. It’s time to stand up and fight to #saveFOI.
You will, no doubt, have heard that the Justice Committee has begun a post-legislative scrutiny of FOI. And you may have read about some of the more alarmist submissions to the inquiry from some public bodies and sector representatives. The general gist of these is that FOI is an expensive luxury at a time of austerity. That requests should be charged for or that requesters should be able to ask for less. That more exemptions should be introduced. That certain groups should be discouraged from using the legislation.
Some of us fear that the post-legislative scrutiny will be used to legitimise attempts by the Government to weaken FOI. The Coalition has made much of its transparency agenda. We welcome progress made in publishing more data and encouraging re-use. But we fear that it will be used to justify weakening the general right of access under FOI.
The general right of access is important for true transparency. Governments can choose what to publish – they can leave out inconvenient truths. The general right of access under FOI lets you choose what should be disclosed (subject to exemptions, of course). Pro-active publication is great but it is open to accusations of patrician benevolence which can be withdrawn at any time. FOI is truly democratic.
There will always be those who abuse rights. But that can be addressed without penalising everyone. At a time of austerity, when public bodies are making difficult decisions, surely the public needs to be able to properly scrutinise public bodies making decisions that affect them. This is not the time to remove or weaken people’s right to interrogate Government.
A number of us feel strongly enough about this that we have decided to launch a campaign to #saveFOI. Some of us are those who use the Act, but some of us actually work within public authorities but believe that FOI is valuable and beginning to make a positive impact.
So why should you join us in defending the Act? I’m going to list below various groups who I think have every reason to support FOI.
Anyone who campaigns about anything at all – which is an increasing number in these difficult times. Many of you make good use of FOI to inform your work. Recent campaigns against library closures and welfare reforms have all made good use of the Act. Without it your campaigns will be hampered.
Journalists – you make good use of FOI to bring us revelations about public bodies and hold politicians to account. How many times do we read that a story was based on information “released through the Freedom of Information Act” ?
FOI Officers and other public servants. Some of you know that the cost and volume of FOI requests is being exaggerated in some quarters. Some of you acknowledge heavy workloads but realise that that isn’t a reason to remove people’s rights. Many of you can see that FOI is beginning to make an impact, with our organisations slowly becoming more transparent and making processes more efficient and accountable. Many of you will have had to fight to get colleagues or politicians to comply with the Act. Don’t let their negativity win. Even if you have reservations about it, surely self-preservation requires you to support it? Rising FOI requests may mean more work, but that also makes it far less likely that you will be amongst those who are made redundant in these difficult times. You are the turkey and you shouldn’t vote for Christmas.
Businesses. Smaller enterprises are using data disclosed through FOI or as part of the wider transparency agenda. You cannot afford for your right to this data to be weakened. Larger businesses have often used FOI to supplement their knowledge of potential clients. FOI is an asset you benefit from – don’t let it be struck from the books.
Academics? Some of you moan about FOI, some have legitimate concerns about the premature disclosure of research data, but some of you embrace it. You use it in your research, and you could do much more. Do you really want to eliminate a valuable tool?
Politicians and political parties. You’ve all used FOI to hold public authorities, council leaders, NHS Trusts and Ministers to account and to expose scandals. Political parties regularly use it to inform campaigning and electioneering. Do you want FOI to lose its bite?
Critics of the Act. Of course it’s not perfect. To some extent however much was disclosed, it wouldn’t satisfy everyone. But if the existing Act is emasculated, then your fight for more openness becomes that bit harder.
And individuals. You, yes you there reading this on your phone; and madam, your eyes glazing over at the screen; you sir, over there trying to avoid being seen browsing the internet. All of you. You all have a powerful right to interrogate public bodies. It’s simply not true to say that most requests come from journalists – most come from people like you. You might not have used it yet, but you could do. And you never know when you might want to understand how a decision has been reached that affects you. And even if you never use it directly, you are overall much better informed about Government (both central and your local council) through media use of FOI. Do you want to be in the dark again?
So help us to fight the good fight and prevent changes to the FOI Act that will weaken it. You can take the first steps by visiting our campaign blog at savefoi2012 and returning for updates, you can also follow our twitter account @saveFOI. We’ll keep you informed on what you can do to help #saveFOI.
Paul Gibbons is an FOI Officer for a public authority, and blogs at foiman.com You can also find him on twitter under the name @FoIManUK